ISLAMABAD — Security forces have launched a massive manhunt in a city in the northwestern Pakistani province of Khyber-Pakhtunkhwa, where more than 200 prisoners have escaped following an overnight militant assault on a prison.
With Taliban-led violence on the rise, the leader of the province's ruling party has warned Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif that Pakistan could lose its anti-terror war unless a national counter-terrorism policy is quickly devised.
Dozens of suspected Taliban fighters armed with bombs and grenades took part in the Monday night raid on the central prison of Dera Ismail Khan, a remote town in Khyber-Pakhtunkhwa province.
Eyewitnesses and residents said the attack began with a powerful explosion, which was followed by smaller blasts that blew up electricity lines into the prison and rattled almost every house in the neighborhood. Twelve people, including four policemen, were killed during the attack, which lasted for several hours, according to officials.
Pakistani troops were quickly sent in to help the civilian administration prevent the attackers and prisoners from escaping to the neighboring restive tribal districts of North and South Waziristan. A curfew was imposed in Dera Ismail Khan and a search was launched.
Military sources said that “intelligence-led search operations are underway while combat aviation is also deployed for air surveillance” in-and-around Dera Ismail Khan. They said that all roads leading to the militant-dominated neighboring tribal regions have been blocked.
However, as of Tuesday afternoon Pakistani authorities had been able to recapture only 17 of the escapees, including five women. Three “terrorists” were also killed in the encounter.
Pakistani Taliban insurgents claimed responsibility for the attack.
Military sources said that nearly 500 prisoners were in the facility at the time of the brazen attack and that 248 managed to escape, including up to 20 they described as “hardcore terrorists.”
The sources revealed that intelligence reports were recently made available to local authorities warning an attack on the prison was imminent. However, only around two dozen police personnel were guarding the facility when Monday night’s raid occurred.
Khyber-Pakhtunkhwa province has seen a dramatic rise in Taliban-led militant violence in recent months. Imran Khan, the leader of the political party that rules the region, said terrorist attacks like the one on the prison were likely to grow in number unless the central government devised a national counter-extremism policy.
Speaking to VOA, Khan demanded that Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif fulfill his commitment to present a national security policy without wasting further time.
“Taliban influence is increasing because radicalization is increasing because extremism is growing and there is no proper policy of dealing with the various forms of terrorism," he said. "Unless there is at a national level a policy is made and then we have something like homeland security [in the U.S.], where all intelligence agencies pool their intelligence and a coherent policy comes across, [with] all stakeholders on board -- unless that happens, we are going to lose this war.”
However, Federal Minister Ahsan Iqbal dismissed criticism that Prime Minister Sharif’s administration was not making efforts to confront the militants.
“We are trying to deal with the situation. The prime minister has had consensus with the security agencies. Now we are evolving a consensus with the political parties. Very shortly, Prime Minister [Sharif] will have a meeting of all the political parties. We want to have a national strategy on security, so that we can address this issue with fullest national resolve,” said Iqbal.
Last week, Taliban extremists killed nearly 60 people, mostly Shi'ite Muslims, in two separate bomb attacks in the northwestern Kurrum tribal district. That violence came just days after a commando-style militant gun-and-bomb raid on a regional headquarters of the country’s main spy agency, the ISI, which is directing Pakistan’s war against terrorism.
The attack in the otherwise sleepy southern town of Sukkur killed nine people, including four ISI officers.
Since Pakistan joined the U.S.-led anti-terrorism war 12 years ago, successive governments in Islamabad have come under criticism for not evolving a clear policy to deal with Islamic radicalism. Despite losing thousands of Pakistanis in the anti-militant campaign, critics say that a prolonged debate among political leaders on whether to use outright military force against militant groups or engage them in peace talks to end violence has simply emboldened extremist forces in the country.